The world of opera, broken down by the coronavirus, is back on its feet in the summer – probably the only Salzburg festival to celebrate its centenary in August. After trimming the repertoire, there are two operas left – “Cosi Fan Tutte” of W. A. Mozart, and “Elektra” of R. Strauss. The latter will be embodied on the big stage by Lithuanian Aušrinė Stundytė. Having studied in Lithuania and Germany, currently living in Belgium and working all over the world, the singer dedicates her voice to the repertoire of the 20th century – she performs works by Strauss, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Bartok, Janacek and Poulenc in the world’s largest opera houses. In the interview, the soloist shares her thoughts on the professional experiences that built her up, the creation of the character of Elektra, and the anxiety before her debut at the Salzburg Festival.
You’ve mentioned that you have an unusual voice and you can’t find other singers with whom you can compare your voices. What kind of opera singer was or is the aspiration of your voice?
In the first year of my career – and for many years after that – my ideal as a singer was my professor Irena Milkeviciutė. However, I realized that aligning with the gods of opera is a very ungrateful process. It was only after many years that I gradually came to terms with the fact that I would never become a singer like her and I stopped trying to copy her. This was the beginning of the next stage of my professional career, during which I sought to discover my natural voice and acknowledge it – first and foremost for myself. I am not a natural singer by nature, so such processes cost me a lot of time and patience.
In your youth, you thought that your voice is too weak for opera. How did you discover and tame your voice?
As I mentioned, it was and still is a never-ending process. I remember Professor Milkeviciute at the beginning of my studies saying to me, “It will be about fifteen years before you fully know your voice.” In my mind at the time, I thought, “Well, not for me, I’ll get there much sooner.” Here, twenty-five years have passed since the first singing lessons. I am still learning and don’t feel like I have reached my Holy Grail.
You mentioned that although acting is closer to you, music reaches the human soul much deeper. How do you combine acting with singing on stage? What is more important to you?
Frankly, both of these things are equal to me. There are moments in the opera genre where acting and suggestive emotion are more interesting than singing and perfect sound. On the other hand, there are moments where the music is stronger than anything else. Then you just have to stop on stage and sing as beautifully as possible without mixing anything up.
As a singer, how much creative power do you have in staging an opera, participating in rehearsals?
It depends on the director. When the director is sensitive and able to exploit the potential of the singers, he or she leaves room for their personality to manifest and for their own interpretation to grow. I don’t like to discuss, but I like to improvise during rehearsals. The directors are happy to take over some of these improvisations. Basically, the influence of each singer is limited by the roles he or she creates. Because contemporary opera productions are not limited to storytelling, the creation of a new perspective and interpretation is carried out only by the director.
You mention that when you prepare for the role, you first learn the music, then you work on acting with the director, and in the last rehearsals you combine both of these sides. Can musical and dramatic interpretations be incompatible? What changes do you make during the last rehearsals?
In the first weeks of rehearsals, I try not to sing. But all the time, I feel that the moment is inevitably coming when later what I play will have to be sung. The body gradually gets used to what it will do on stage. As a result, the change in last weeks rarely knocks me out of my center – by combining acting with singing, I try to reduce my physical activity as much as possible.
You mentioned that you get tired of regular traveling. How do you find balance in your daily life as a musician?
I spend more and more time today not traveling, but painting. I still don’t dare to call my drawings art, but I really like to paint with colors. Although I rarely draw pictures, I paint everything at home that falls under my hand. The main victims of such artistic attacks are walls, ceilings and furniture. It gives me an infinite amount of joy.
How do today’s audiences in different countries react to contemporary opera?
I deeply believe in the intuition of the public. If the staging is strong – no special preparation is required to evaluate and understand it. Every time I notice this myself in different countries and opera houses.
True, some theaters have entrenched old traditions and innovation there is viewed critically. Once, during a rehearsal at the Seattle Opera, I played the suicide scene of Madame Butterfly, the curator politely asked me to commit suicide “not so realistically.” He was shocked by my death and I should fall more plastic next time – even though this production by Madame Butterfly was not modern. So such things happen.
How does the audience in the hall determine the performance?
I don’t think the audience realizes its power. A good audience can give the performers extra energy and thus take the performance to a whole new level. Opera is a parallel, wordless conversation between a stage and an audience. It begins before the curtain rises and continues until the last applause.
You mentioned that according to how the director perceives a woman, so does he direct her. What can you say about the different interpretations of a woman you have experienced?
You don’t want to put people in certain drawers, but in opera it’s easy to feel what the director’s relationship is to femininity. Some emphasize a woman’s strength, her potential; others try to soften her. It was an interesting experience to take part once in a production where, in the eyes of the director, the place of a woman had not changed since the turn of the last century. It reminded me how drastically our society had changed with respect to women. What was a norm decades ago is now absolutely unacceptable. This is gratifying.
You mention that you have something inside that you don’t allow yourself to be and this side shows up on stage. How did you discover this part of your personality and what does complete openness on stage require of you?
I discovered my dark side on stage by embodying negative roles. In fact, most singers are much more interested in playing the roles of bad guys, because then it is allowed to disregard moral norms on the stage without any consequences. In real life, I work with myself and don’t allow myself much – I try to never hurt another person, sometimes even if it hurts me. It’s much easier to be open on stage than in life. After all, no one ever knows where you are open and “naked” and where you simply play the character. The role itself is liberating.
How did your approach to the profession of opera singer develop?
I would call the first year of my professional life the “survival phase” (laughs – O.J.). There was neither time nor space for a deeper analysis of my activities. All I had to do was lift the burden, learn a lot of new roles, don’t lose my voice, and pay taxes on the minimum wage. The quality of my performance at the time matched everything else. This period shattered all my naive illusions about theater. I saw that work here is as in a conveyor factory. It was very far from the creative temple touched by muses. But that didn’t cure me of an innate addiction to the scene and opera.
Later, I was lucky many times and had the opportunity to work with amazing directors and colleagues. They have helped me regain my lost faith that each of us can create something special, valuable. They reassured me that my intuitive perception of theater was not just a naive illusion.
Opera has never been a mass genre. But for souls seeking beauty, meaning, union with something greater than everyday life, fashion and popularity ratings are irrelevant. There are and will always be such people, and we sing for them.
What motivates you in your profession, what leads you forward?
Unachieved goals. I often think that if my career had been easier, I would probably have left the scene out of boredom a long time ago. My engine is a constant feeling of dissatisfaction that I have not yet reached my potential and have not yet found my true voice.
You have mentioned that you face greater psychological pressure when singing in the major opera theaters. How are you managing the pressure before making your debut at the Salzburg Festival?
I don’t manage it – I’m very anxious, I don’t sleep, I don’t want to see or talk to anyone. I’m not the most enjoyable person this month. Fortunately, those around me in the days before the premiere forgives me and gives me the space I so desperately need.
In the staging of “Elektra| in Antwerp you embodied the Chrysothemis role, which will be performed by Asmik Grigorian at the Salzburg Festival. How did your perception of Elektra as an opera and a character change after this staging?
I remember once listening to “Elektra” as a student and I was not at all impressed. I never voluntarily listened to it again – until I sang it in Antwerp. Irene Theorin sang Elektra’s role in that production – later on with the same opera she made her debut in Salzburg in 2010. Theorin is an amazing singer and her singing has completely changed my approach to this opera. I remember back then thinking for the first time that I would like to sing Elektra myself.
The more I listen to this music, the more beautiful it seems to me. Strauss’s music is truly divine, but to hear it, you often have to listen to it more than once or twice. The further I go, the more beauty I discover in it. Therein lays the magic of Strauss as a composer.
For the first time, you are collaborating with conductor Franz Welser-Möst. What do you expect from his musical interpretation of Elektra?
Conductor Welser-Möst is an amazing musician. So far we’ve only worked with the piano, I don’t know yet how everything will sound when accompanied by an orchestra. But I can already say that I have never worked as detailed and deeply as with him. Personally, I was extremely interested in his explanation of how Strauss’s orchestration and motifs hide the subtext to the text spoken by the characters. The character on the stage says one thing, but at the same time the motifs in the orchestration betray a completely different thought and its hidden meaning.
One can draw a parallel between the characters of Elektra and Salome, which both correspond to certain canonical elements of the opera, their musical portraits are incredibly intense, demanding of the performer. Maybe you are taking elements from your previously created role in Salome when creating Elektra? Maybe you notice similarities between them?
Only at first glance may it appear that Salome and Elektra are similar characters. The only thing that connects them, in my opinion, is their dark side – but this one also has differences.
Salome’s crime happens spontaneously, as if by mistake. Its interior is unstable, fragile, and childish. There is an absolutely different inner world in Elektra. Mature, dead inside, she lives driven only by revenge for her father’s murder. With vengeance, there is no more in her life. Salome is life and energy that rises up. Elektra is death.
You will embody Elektra next year at the Vienna Opera. Is difficult to sing the same material and to empathize with another director’s concept, interpretation?
Certain character traits are inseparable from music and history. They remain in any staging. However, on the other hand, the details, circumstances, situations and even the basis of the character’s personality may change depending on the vision of the director. I am very attracted to the opportunity to find a new color, a new idea. As I mentioned, I am afraid of boredom, so I am constantly striving for new creative impulses.
I’ve heard singers associate opera action with personal stories. Do you use such a technique?
In this case, half of the opera soloists should be serious criminals or potential suicides (laughs – O.J.). Trully, often certain impulses on stage are inherited from the singer’s own personal history, position, or attitudes to the themes explored in the opera: such as violence, injustice, motherhood, personal boundaries, and so on.
What common points do you find in the role of Elektra? Maybe something in her story inspires or teaches you as a person?
I ask myself more and more often – what will my embodied character give to the listener? For me personally, negative roles are a channel to be with destructive energy that has no place in real life. Perhaps the opera allows the listener to relax a little more and also be with their dark side.
Elektra, in her own eyes, fully justifies her position of revenge and sees nothing reprehensible in it. We, as outside observers, experience something completely different. I would be happy if, after the performance, one spectator would ask himself whether his old grudge and unfulfilled desire for revenge have a basis. Maybe everything was simply just a mistake? Maybe I’m ready to forgive and forget?
You will play sisters with Asmik Grigorian in “Elektra”. The careers of the two of you seem quite sister-like – both Lithuanian you two learned in the class of Irena Milkevičiūtė, you often perform the same roles, in the same opera houses and festivals. How would you describe the relationship between you on stage and in life?
Despite the fact that we both studied with Irena Milkevičiūtė, our paths practically did not cross during our studies. This production is our first real meeting and I am very happy to have the opportunity to get to know Asmik and work with her. Asmik is an amazing singer and an extremely warm, special person. I hope this meeting will not be the last.
How does preparation change under quarantine conditions? As far as I know, there were decreased rehearsals. Are there restrictions on performers during rehearsals and performances? Do you feel stressed by the threat of the virus?
The atmosphere here is special. We all understand what a privilege and responsibility we are given – this is almost the only big festival open this summer. If at least one participant falls ill, the festival will be closed. This pressure gives a strong sense of responsibility – every time we think not only about ourselves, but also about the whole event. Also, due to all the restrictions, the festival area is probably the safest place in Europe.
On the Internet, in one of the descriptions of the staging of “Elektra”, you are called a “rising star”. Does this resonate with you? Do you still feel “rising” or are you satisfied, fulfilled in your professional life at this point in your career?
I didn’t know about the title of “rising star” and I don’t see myself in this light. My goal is not to be famous, but to be happy. In my professional life, I have already achieved everything I wanted – I worked with interesting singers and directors, I sang almost all the roles that interest me. The scene is not my whole life – so I really would not want to become the second Anna Netrebko.
What significance do you give to this performance yourself?
Frankly, I didn’t ask myself this question. I really wanted to sing Electric and there was such an opportunity along the way. That’s all.
Thank you for conversation!